"Loosen your seatbelts, it's going to be a dull night," Margo Channing might say as she swills a martini in preparation to see The Lying Lesson at Atlantic Theater Company. For the uninitiated, Channing is Bette Davis' character in the 1950 classic movie about undermining actresses, All About Eve. While Tony nominated playwright Craig Lucas (Prelude to a Kiss) has chosen the sublimely acerbic Davis as his subject, the resulting script is rather dry, and not in the good martini sense of the word.
The Lying Lesson is set in a dusty home in small-town Maine. It's 1981 and a 73-year-old Bette Davis (Carol Kane) is about to close on the house, but is staying there a few day before she makes it official. When New England tomboy Minnie Bodine (Mickey Sumner), an employee of the soon-to-be-former owners, comes through the kitchen window on a dark and stormy night, Davis initially accosts her with a knife. After Bodine delivers Davis a bottle of her favorite scotch however, the two become fast friends. The world-weary Davis is especially delighted that Bodine has never heard of her, and begins to dish on her storied career. It's Hollywood 101 with Bette.
Much of the first act feels like an afterschool special for culturally deprived gay boys (I'm looking at you, RuPaul's Drag Race season five contestants) on the importance of fabulous ladies of yesteryear. Davis recounts her myriad dramas, both on-screen and off, and Minnie responds, "I gotta see these movies." It's like being transported to Happy Hour at Townhouse Bar, where Uncle Craig is giving a gin-soaked lecture on "the greatest actress the world had ever seen."
That's not to say that hearing salacious details of Davis' rivalry with Joan Crawford, straight from the horse's mouth, is not utterly delicious. It is, especially in the capable hands of Carol Kane. In fact, Davis' hallmark one-liners are the only thing buoying this play along, keeping its head above water.
Carol Kane is spot-on in her comic timing, even if inappropriate Eastern European strains tend to invade her Mid-Atlantic WASP accent. She conveys the presence of Hollywood royalty. In stark contrast, native Brit Mickey Sumner gives a very convincing performance as a New England townie, complete with flawless dialect. You can practically smell the lobster wafting off of her clothes.
A different kind of smell is conjured when looking at Neil Patel's hyper-realistic set, that of moth balls. The dirty rugs and wall stains where picture frames should be just scream "old lady." Iiona Somogyi seems to have pulled the golden age of Hollywood out of an attic trunk with her imaginative costumes. Lighting Designer Russell H. Champa and Sound design team Broken Chord have created the most realistic thunderstorm I've ever seen on stage for the opening scene. All of the elements are working in tandem, marshaled along under the expert direction of Pam Mackinnon.
Unfortunately, great performances, stunning design, and competent direction aren't enough to make up for poor source material.
This play is a thinly-veiled excuse to put the character of Bette Davis on stage. Think My Week with Marilyn, but far less sexy. That's fine on its own, but the fact that Lucas felt the need to justify this concept with a flimsy plot that ever-so-shallowly touches upon socially relevant themes like aging, small-town malaise, and the nature of lying, is baffling. The stakes for the two characters are simply too low to attach to these subjects. To be fair, the playwright served himself a tall order; By invoking the memory of Bette Davis, Lucas opens his work for comparison to all the acidly brilliant scripts that were made even more potent in her voice. "Follow the narrative, Minnie, please," Davis desperately implores, and it feels like she's talking to the audience just as much as her co-actor. Sorry, I'm too busy thinking about Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. Now, that was writing.